A Fanpost by stjoechief
Each of us has moments in our lives that were pivot points, where things could have gone in many different directions. Sometimes those moments are positive and sometimes they are negative, but they have a disproportionate impact on who we are. Organizations are the same. They can roll along for years on essentially the same track, and then something happens that affects their direction for years to come. This is an attempt to catalog those moments for the Kansas City Chiefs. Because this is the dregs of the offseason and I’ve re-watched the video of all 50 of Patrick Mahomes’ touchdowns last year so many times I can’t stand it.
In the first post of this series I looked at turning points for the Chiefs from the founding of the AFL up to the AFL-NFL merger. Those were happy times. For this round you might want to pour yourself a drink. Make mine a double.
The Firing of Hank Stram
On December 27, 1974 Lamar Hunt held a press conference announcing the firing of Head Coach and Vice President Hank Stram. Stram was the only coach the team ever had, starting with the Dallas Texans in 1960. He was widely regarded as an innovator, introducing the moving pocket and stacked defenses among other changes. He was also in charge of player contract negotiations and personnel. After the Super Bowl IV victory the Chiefs went 7-3-2 and missed the playoffs in 1970. The 1971 team, which Stram called his most talented squad ever, went 10-3-1 but lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. At the end of that season Stram was signed to a ten year contract and given the added title of Vice President. He became the de facto General Manager, although Jack Steadman officially held that title.
The Chiefs then entered a bit of a decline as the team went 8-6 in 1972 and 7-5-2 in 1973. In 1974 the Chiefs had their first losing record in a decade, going 5-9. Fans were unhappy and many blamed Stram for the Chiefs’ dropoff, especially his drafting and trades. Stram was perceived by many to be pompous and arrogant, which was colorful when the team was winning but abrasive when it was not. Lamar Hunt ultimately yielded to pressure from both inside and outside the organization and fired the coach who had been the best man at his wedding. In his press conference, Hunt said that he would be more actively involved in the team at all levels. Steadman became GM in fact as well as in name, although he would be promoted to team President in 1976 and his assistant, Jim Schaaf would become GM until 1989. Paul Wiggin was hired as Head Coach. Remember him? Yeah, me neither.
It’s hard to say in retrospect whether Hank Stram would have done any better than the coaches the Chiefs had in the 70’s and 80’s. The team was aging fast and there was little young talent in the pipeline. Stram, like many great coaches, was a subpar GM and that was going to bite the team regardless of who was on the sideline on game day. His only other NFL coaching job, a two year stint with the Saints, showed that a coach doesn’t make much difference on a talentless team. But Hank Stram’s departure marked the end of the Chiefs’ early glory days and heralded a decade and a half of wandering in the wilderness. There was a chance at redemption, though, as the team approached…
The 1983 Draft
The Chiefs’ drafts from 1970 to 1989 were bad. There were a few standout players like Art Still, Gary Spani, and the late, great Joe Delaney, but there wasn’t exactly a great infusion of talent over that time span. When Len Dawson retired after the 1975 season quarterback became a glaring hole. The Chiefs made an attempt to fill that hole in 1979 when they drafted Steve Fuller in the first round. The highlight of Fuller’s career was getting a Super Bowl ring as the backup quarterback for the 1985 Chicago Bears.
But in 1983 the Chiefs were in prime position to get their quarterback of the future. They had the seventh overall pick in a draft that is still regarded as the best quarterback draft ever. When the Chiefs went on the clock, only one quarterback, John Elway, had been taken first overall by the Baltimore Colts. As we all know, Elway refused to play for an East Coast team and forced a trade to the Denver Broncos. The repercussions of that trade are still affecting the Chiefs, since Horseface was not only Kansas City’s nemesis on the field but is now the GM of the Broncos. That might not have mattered so much, given the options the Chiefs had with the seventh pick. Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien were all on the board. The Chiefs had just fired Marv Levy as Head Coach. They could have had the combination of Levy and Jim Kelly for the next decade. Or we could have had shootouts between Marino and Elway twice a year. But with the seventh overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft, the Kansas City Chiefs selected:
Todd Blackledge, Quarterback, Penn State.
In a long stretch of bad drafts, 1983 was a disaster of epic proportions. Blackledge was one of the biggest busts in NFL history and John Elway took the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning three. The Chiefs were burned so badly that they didn’t take a quarterback in the first round again for 34 years. That pick turned out a bit differently (#MVPat) but there’s still a long way to go before that. By this point the Chiefs organization was like an alcoholic, spiraling out of control but not realizing it yet. Before recovery can begin there has to be recognition that there’s a problem. And that often requires hitting rock bottom. Which leads us to…
The Frank Gansz Fiasco
To go along with their shiny new quarterback the Chiefs hired John Mackovic as Head Coach in 1983. While Mackovic couldn’t turn Blackledge into a competent NFL starter, he did manage to lead the team to a 10-6 record in 1986, gaining their first playoff berth in 15 years. I remember watching that game, a road Wild Card game against the Jets, on TV. Bill Kenney, the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, was injured (as he so often was), and Blackledge started the game. I still remember one announcer on the pregame show predicting that this game would be Todd Blackledge’s coming out party, where he finally vindicated the Chiefs taking him over all those other quarterbacks in 1983. For those who remember Ron Jaworski saying Tyler Palko was going to play well, you can see that talking heads haven’t really changed much over the years. Blackledge went 20 of 37 for 177 yards and 2 interceptions. The Chiefs had one offensive score and lost 35-15.
After the playoff loss rumors began to circulate that Mackovic was cold and distant, with little connection to the players. The coach all the players loved was Frank Gansz, the Special Teams coordinator. The evening news was plastered with stories about the need to keep Gansz, and that the only way to keep him was to make him Head Coach. And because this is the Chiefs in the 80’s, Lamar Hunt fired the first coach since Hank Stram to take his team to the playoffs. Gansz was promoted from Special Teams coordinator to Head Coach. The players were reportedly thrilled. The fans, taking their cue from the local media, were relieved that the drama had played out in the right way.
The 1987 season was marred by the players’ strike. Owners brought in scabs and played 15 games, calling it a normal season for recordkeeping purposes. The Chiefs went 4-11, but that really can’t be laid at the feet of Frank Gansz. The 1988 season was a different story, though. Gansz did no better with a regular NFL roster than with replacement players, posting a 4-11-1 record. The shine had worn off of Frank Gansz. The only bright spot on the team was a bruising young fullback from Nigeria named Christian Okoye.
He trampled defenders into the dirt every time he got the ball. Unfortunately he only had 105 carries all year. If only there were a coach out there who appreciated a punishing running game…